Florham Park, N.J.– In his rookie season Dustin Keller showed glimpses of how dangerously productive he could be. This year, his third season, Keller has stepped it up consistently showing that he is a force to be reckoned with.
In 2008 the Jets had two draft picks in the first round, the sixth pick and the 30th pick. That sixth pick was the, so far, disappointing Vernon Gholston, but it appears GM Mike Tannenbaum struck gold when he selected the tight end out of Purdue with the 30th pick in the draft.
Jets fans may remember 2008 as the year of the Favre debacle for now, but with the way Keller has been playing fans might soon use their selective memory to erase the image of Favre in a Jets jersey and remember it as the year they drafted their explosive tight end.
Keller was the first tight end taken in the draft, and was considered a bit of a reach at the 30th spot, but the Jets needed a playmaking tight end. Take a look at the ESPN insider’s Scout’s Inc. analysis of the pick of Keller in the 2008 draft.
“The Jets are a team lacking playmakers, but Keller gives offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer a lot of versatility with his personnel groupings and matchups. He has good hands and gives them a threat in the passing game, unlike Chris Baker or Bubba Franks. Look for Schottenheimer to move him around and detach him in the formation.”
The Jets certainly aren’t lacking playmakers anymore and Keller is becoming just as dangerous of a weapon as anyone else in a Jets uniform. But after watching Keller play this year it seems like that part of the Scout’s Inc. analysis was dead on, however he is just now transforming into a complete all around tight end on a steady and reliable basis.
As a rookie Keller had a few standout games that provided hints on just how good he could be, but his inconsistency continued to hold him back until this year.
Keller finished his rookie season third on the team in both receptions and receiving yards (48 catches for 535 yards), while only starting in six games. Fans saw a lot of potential in Keller that year, but he suffered a bit of a sophomore slump putting up almost identical numbers (45 catches for 522 yards) in his second season even though he started in twice as many games.
One of the things that was holding him back was the one area of his game the people from ESPN’s Scout’s Inc. were critical of when he was drafted. “One of the biggest knocks on Keller is that he’s probably never going to develop into an excellent in-line blocker. Also, he doesn’t have the frame to add a lot of bulk without sacrificing his greatest strength: his speed.”
Last season the Jets were limited in what they could do through the air, for a variety of reasons, but one of the reasons for Keller’s inconsistency was his blocking wasn’t where it needed to be.
The effect of having a tight end who isn’t a great blocker in a limited offense is never good for the offense, because the defense knows it’s a pass play as soon as he comes on the field and then they would turn their focus to Keller.
This year that’s all changed. It started in the offseason and by mini-camp there was a drastic difference. During practices coaches could constantly be heard praising Keller for his blocking. Now the Jets offense is reaping the rewards of his hard work this offseason.
Keller said, “It’s something that’s been real big for me to work on in the offseason because coming on to the field every single time, teams knew more times than not it was going to be a pass play. Probably 75 percent of the time, that’s what we were doing. Since I did a lot of work with my coach, Mike Devlin, in the offseason, it’s been huge for me. Now, (teams) can’t overplay the pass or the run. They have to be honest, and that plays to the advantage of me and my teammates.”
Just how exactly did he go about practicing his blocking in the offseason?
“Obviously all football players with the exception of kickers, (looking directly at kicker Nick Folk), do a lot of lifting and stuff in the offseason.” Keller said, “So that just comes with the job, but I think it’s just, more so, working on technique (and) your hands. Just knowing the grand scheme of the whole entire play, what the guy next to you is doing and what type of track or angle the running back is going to be taking. And once you figure all that stuff out it makes it a lot easier.”
If Keller can keep this explosive playmaking, and decimating blocking, up defenses will continue to struggle to handle this offense.
Rex Ryan is thrilled with Keller’s progression as a blocker. “I think he’s done a great job. I think Mike Devlin has worked hard with Dustin. Having a leader like Ben Hartsock right there with you, they’ve really pushed Dustin. He’s been great also.” Ryan said, “He wants to be a complete tight end and I think you see that now. He’s really doing a good job. He’s got great quickness so he ought to be able to position himself and be a position wall-type blocker. But he’s also getting a little pop now so I’m really encouraged with the way Dustin’s blocking.”
Everyone is aware of the fact that the Jets have one of the best offensive lines in the game, but Braylon Edwards doesn’t get anywhere near the credit he deserves as a pass blocker.
The ability to get quality blocking from skill position players on the outside of the tackles and deep down the field is a talent that isn’t always noticed or thought of by all spectators, but it is something that players and coaches are all aware of.
Keller said, “It’s huge, when we have the passing game starting to be established now, so that’s going to take a lot of pressure off the run game. Then when you have guys, especially like our receivers, that are able to block down field like that, that always springs big plays for us. And as long as we keep on doing that, we’re going to continue to make those plays.”
Obviously a big reason why the passing game is being established is because of Keller’s presence and the chemistry he has built with his quarterback. The trials and tribulations of Sanchez’s struggles last season are well documented, but his progress can be traced back to all the hard work and studying he did in the offseason as well.
One of the biggest steps Sanchez took in establishing more of a leadership role, as well as working to build the chemistry between him and his receivers, was inviting the receivers out to his home in California to get some extra work in so they could improve in every facet of the game during the offseason.
“That’s huge, I think more times than not, during that time guys want to be wherever their from or wherever they have their vacation. They want to spend their time away, but I think just the fact that he wanted to bring all the guys along and he wanted us to take another step toward being great that just opened up a lot of guys eyes.” Keller said, “So everybody got out there and it was huge for us to work during that time because you get a month and a half off. That almost makes it like all the work you put in, in the OTAs and mini-camps, is worthless because you have to start out all over again when you get to training camp. But by splitting that time with a week out there, I think that helped us tremendously.”
Sanchez loves the way his trusted tight end is evolving, “He’s done really well. He was one of the first ones to come out to California to throw. He was the first one to book his flight. As soon as I talked to him about it, (he said), ‘I’m there. What do you need?’ That work we got in the offseason was huge.”
Sanchez said, “Now, he’s just trying to fine-tune it. He’s one of the first guys in the film room with me to watch third-down cutups. He’s talking through shifts and motions, ‘Ok, who’s going to line up on me? Why? What’s he doing? Who’s going to play this coverage? What’s the look that he’s going to get?'”
Keller’s evolution as a blocker has corresponded perfectly with him becoming a reliable safety blanket for his quarterback ,which has so far has produced outstanding numbers.
Through four games this season Keller has 19 catches for 254 yards and five touchdowns, which puts him on pace to double his stats from last season. In fact he has already more than doubled the two touchdowns he caught last year.
At 3-1 the Jets are looking good all around right now and Keller is a crucial cog in the teams success, but Keller and his teammates are far from satisfied and insist they still have more work to do.
“Yeah, definitely. You always want to strive for perfection and we’re far from that right now, but we’re playing pretty good football and I think we’re happy with where we’re at now, but we still have a little way to go.” Keller said.
Anyone who has spent any time around the Jets know this mind state isn’t changing anytime soon and though Keller may not be perfect, he is steadily emerging as a complete tight end.
Which means Jets fans should get used to seeing this type of production from the 2008, 30th draft pick out of Purdue.
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